Letters Home #17 Exegesis

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This week I started a new project, called Exegesis. Its inspired by everything I’ve been doing or trying to do. But before I get to that; a short story.

**

An old man shuffled with several heavy books down a quiet street. Two under his right arm, two under his left, one pinched in his right hand. He stopped briefly at a bench to ease and consider his burden, then continued on his way. As the old man struggled a young man watched, eventually he approached and offered to help. The old man was grateful and together they walked a few blocks to the old man’s apartment. Once inside the young man set the books on a side table and helped the old man into a chair. “I hope you don’t mind my asking a question,” the young man ventured, sensing himself in the presence of wisdom.
“Not at all,” replied the old man, still catching his breath.
All of a sudden the young man was self-conscious. It seemed absurd to lay at the feet of a man he’d never met a question he’d always wanted to ask.
“So,” said the old man, noticing the young man’s hesitation, “What is it you’d like to know?”

Unbeknownst to the young man, in a time gone by the old man was called an exegete and a homilist. He’d expounded, proclaimed and edified. Teased, pruned and tamed the verses of ancient stories whose lines frequently overgrew the sweet nectar between them. All so that others might more easily wander the garden of their genius.
But the ancient stories were predicated on the notion of Truth. And time, in its propensity to select and reject from the catalogues of ideas throughout human history, rejected Truth. Its reasons were clear. Nothing, it said, could occur contrary to the laws of nature. And besides, that there were a multitude of denominations laying claim to Truth was unequivocal evidence that whatever it was in their stories that sustained them, it had little to do with objective reality.
So the old man had been stripped of his reverie. However, unlike some of his colleagues he made no appeal to a higher court. Nor did he dispense with his verses. Instead he gave one final address to his congregation.
“My friends,” he said, “There is no greater sacrifice than a sacrifice for Truth. This we learn from Abraham, who for Truth was willing to bind his only son Isaac to the alter. So terrifying was his faith, the sages tell us, that the angels in heaven cried and their tears fell into Isaac’s eyes. Years later, as an old man, Isaac was blind and vulnerable thus to deceit. Permit me to offer an equally terrifying interpretation of this story. For the sacrifice a man makes for Truth is to denigrate all ideas but his own. To the vast majority of humankind he says, ‘I have sacrificed your ideas for Truth.’ Therefore he cannot even consider them. He is forever prejudiced. And like one who stares openly at the sun he will stare so hard at Truth that when he looks away he will be unable to see beyond its imprint. Such a man is blind. And his children will be blind as well.”
Muffled voices rippled through the congregation and threatened to boil over.
“My friends! Please, let me finish!” The old man struggled to quiet the room, it was quickly filling with unbridled emotion and unfortunately his final words were lost on many. “Let us not hold so tightly to our verses that we prevent even the tiniest drop of nectar from reaching our tongues. For it is the nectar that sustains us, and we should continue to know its taste. The same stuff flows in other stories, but not in all of them. So I implore you to look upon your work as I look now upon my own, knowing that it has barely begun.”
With that the old man left his post. In the proceeding years he set about studying the collected literary effort of humankind. What he learned frequently changed his mind. 

The young man looked in the old man’s eyes, a pair of alpine lakes crowded by fleshy peaks and valleys. 
“I’d like to know what makes a good story,” he said.
Genuinely interested, the old man replied, “What do you mean by good?”
The young man thought for a moment.
“I suppose I mean true,” he said, "But not the kind of truth arrived at by reason. Nor the kind of truth with a capital T. I mean the kind of truth contained in stories. The kind of truth arrived at by exegesis.”
“And what makes you think the truth of a story can’t be validated by reason?” the old man prodded.
“Because stories have an internal logic. They can make sense without being reasonable.”
“Then perhaps, young man, your question is about the difference between sense and reason.”
Again the young man took a moment to think. He hadn’t framed his question in that way before. Now it seemed too fundamental to pursue. He was lost for words.
“Perhaps,” the old man said quizzically, “It will help you to know this story. Its about a wayfarer, who visited a city rumoured to house an enchanted well. When he arrived in the city the wayfarer enquired at an inn and in exchange for two pints he was given a map. But after following the map for an hour he concluded it was erroneous. What did he expect from an innkeeper? the wayfarer thought. So he visited a fancy hotel, where, in exchange for a room he was given a second map. After another hour he concluded that the second map was a fraud. What did he expect from a hotelier? he thought. Then the wayfarer happened upon a street urchin, who told him in no uncertain terms that such a well did not exist. But what did he expect from an urchin? 
The wayfarer decided to visit the library, where he made copies of every map he could find and spent several days following them all to no avail. Eventually, exhausted, he determined to enlist the help of others. So he stood outside the fancy hotel and sold his maps for a dollar apiece, to cover expenses. Later that day a couple to whom he had sold a map walked by and he overheard the husband say, ‘That map was hogwash!’ to which his wife replied, ‘What did you expect from a peddler?”
The young man was wrapt with the fable but appeared confused. “I’m not sure that answers my question.” he said.
“Well,” came the reply, “What did you expect from a story?”

**

So, back to the project. Simply put its a series of group sessions focused on the exegesis of canonical stories in popular Western culture. Beginning with The Lion King. During the sessions I play twenty to thirty minutes of the film at a time then facilitate a discussion about its underlying significance, which I make poignant by using language from the kids’ vernacular.

For example, here is a snippet of truth contained in The Lion King:

To be a good king (adult) involves a lot more than simply getting one’s way all the time. A good king keeps the circle of life in balance and maintains a peaceful home. A good king is brave, but that doesn’t mean he goes looking for trouble. Being brave means overcoming shame. In that effort it helps to be light hearted, let things go and remember that all the great kings of the past are on your side. 

A king who wants nothing but to get his own way is like Scar, who acts out of jealousy and hatred. He relies on three hyenas who spend all of their time teasing, lying and playing the fool to do his bidding. Their loyalty is based solely on the fact of their being fed.

To be king is the right thing to want, what’s important is how one gets there.

How one gets there.

How one gets there.

Letters Home #10 "Forgiveness"

You can listen to me read this letter here or on iTunes or Stitcher.

Letter #10 “Forgiveness"

Give me confusion and forgive me my pride,
All I wanted was improvement.
(Daniel 15:09)

Right now I’m at my desk. Its a large dining table positioned slightly off centre in a room fifteen paces by five. The table is made of wood, has a hazelnut stain, a simple box apron and four turned legs. Its not so old to demand special treatment, nor so young to be without a story. It has two chairs, one faces a window, the other - at its head - faces into the room. I sit mostly in the former, though sometimes I work in the latter - which is where I am now.

At night before bed I like to work with the front door open. That way the room fills with cool dark air and the scent of campfires. One night the porch light turned on and behind the screen door stood a tabby cat. She was ash grey with charcoal stripes and yellow eyes. I’d been writing for hours and mostly about longing so I saw in those eyes a welcome intrusion. I opened the door and she came in, circled me a few times then brushed her coat against my legs and the legs of my table. I sat on the floor and watched her with caution. She came up, rolled on her back and purred at my touch. I felt flush with warmth and I smiled. 

I told a friend about the cat. She cooed a little and said she often thought about taking in a stray cat, or a dog. There are so many around. The dogs are battered and cats make good housemates. I reminisced about my old cat called Blue, the way he used to sleep on my chest. A few weeks later my friend found a kitten and kept it. I went round to visit and the little grey huntress was chasing lizards. I laughed and cheered her on. But my friend wasn’t amused. She complained that the lizards were native and since the cat moved in she hadn’t seen so many around. I found myself siding with the cat. “Leave her be,” I said, “she lives here too."

A week later I was out bush with some Yolngu Rangers. They’re employed for the purpose of conservation and land management. In many ways they stand on rare common ground between Yolngu knowledge and Western science. We visited a dry river bed. The ground beneath our feet was broken into big chunks of caked mud. The work of feral pigs and buffalo. Years ago, the Rangers said, the river bed was flat, green and abundant with water chestnuts. Now its a salty barren badlands. 

Years ago people collected the chestnuts and found water by the sound of small birds, whose twills and chirps inspired melodies for songs, and whose movements were made into dances. Children learned the dances and recognised the birds. They passed on the knowledge and seldom went thirsty. Years later the birds flew away. Too many cats. The people kept dancing and singing. Children kept learning but they couldn’t see the birds. The old people told them how they used to find water. But the children drank from taps and were thirsty.

On World Indigenous People Day they celebrated their culture with songs and dances, stories and dreams that everyone agreed should be preserved and protected. Don’t forget who you are, the children were told, don’t forget where you come from. Be proud of your roots and your culture. Learn the stories and dreams, help pass them on. Take care of this land. And across the nation people will honour you whenever they meet. They will pay their respects to you and your elders, past present and future.

A child raised his hand. “Are their stories about cats?” he asked.
“Cats?” his teacher echoed.
“Yes, cats!” said the child. “I know to be proud of my culture and to take care of this land. So what should I do about cats?”

His teacher conferred with the Rangers. It was their job to conserve and manage the land. But the Rangers weren’t sure. They’d tried killing the cats, but people kept them as pets, so inevitably the problem outlived that solution. They’d encouraged people to keep them indoors and have them desexed. But some left them be, to hunt and prosper. After all, they lived there too. There was word of a new innovation from overseas but it would be years before the innovation itself would reach the Rangers.

The teacher returned disappointed. “I’m sorry,” he said to the child, “the Rangers aren’t sure. Yolngu knowledge has nothing to tell about cats, and Western science tells stories about future technology."

The child raised his hand, which was unusual. Both for the fact that the teacher stood right in front of him and for the unlikelihood that there might still be a question to ask. “What about Western knowledge?” said the child.
Knowledge?” replied his teacher.
“Yes!” said the child. “Does your culture have stories about cats?”

The teacher was stunned. Who am I? He thought. Where do I come from? Does my culture have stories about cats? He recalled with some difficulty a time when his culture was also made of stories and dreams. They were stories about heroes and heroins and the spirits that dwelt in unseeable spaces. But something had happened - he tried to remember - people searched for spirits but couldn’t find them. So they consulted the Rationalists, who’s job it was to reveal and manage the truth. The Rationalists had technology that could see into unseeable spaces. But they couldn’t see any spirits and soon the people stopped telling their stories. After all, they knew who they were and where they came from, but now they were somewhere new.

“I’m sorry,” said the teacher. “I don’t know any stories about cats.”
The child scrunched his face so that his lips were crumpled and his eyes scanned the air just out of reach to his left. After a few seconds deep in thought he raised his hand.
“Yes?” said the teacher.
“How about snakes?”
“Snakes?”
“Yes. Do you have any stories about snakes?”
The teacher hesitated, “I guess so… but they’re only myths.”
“Whats a myth?” said the child.
“Kind of a story. An old story - but more like a dream. It isn’t —“ the teacher stopped. There was a word on the tip of his tongue but he wasn’t quite sure what it meant. He looked at the child and took a deep breath. “Okay," he began, “I’ll tell you the story. Once there was a beautiful garden, full of plants and animals and fresh flowing water. A man and a woman lived there and took care of the land. It was a time before knowledge and the man and woman didn’t know who they were. They weren’t afraid and never went hungry. Nothing did. One of the trees in the garden was called the tree of knowledge. But the man and the woman weren’t supposed to eat from that tree."
The child was rapt. “Was there a snake in the garden?”
The teacher smiled at the child’s curiosity and felt encouraged to continue the telling. “Yes. There was a snake. It was subtle and smart, it lived in the tree of knowledge and it spoke to the woman. It told her to eat from the tree and find out who she was.”
The child raised his hand and the teacher laughed. “I think I know what you’re going to say,” he said. “You’re going to ask why she wasn’t supposed to know who she was.”
“Yes!” said the child, “Why not?”
“Well, the garden was only for people who didn’t know. If she ate the fruit, she’d have to leave.”
“So what did she do?”
“She ate the fruit.”
“And she had to leave?”
“Yes, and the man too. They left together.”
“Where did they go?”
“Well, they didn’t go anywhere. More like, they woke up.”
“You mean it was all a dream?”

The child was confused and so was the teacher. He felt some embarrassment at having told the story. Such things were no longer told to children and perhaps for good reason. Then he felt the child’s hand enter his own. It brushed the skin of his palm and was dry and soft like a petal. The child’s interest was innocent and genuine. He couldn’t know the tension these stories conjured in the hearts and minds of teachers. “You know what?” he asked.
The teacher hoped for once the child had an answer, “What?” he replied.
“I know who you are!”
Surprised, the teacher turned to the child. He wanted so desperately to know that he laughed a little and casually said, “Oh yeah?”
“Yeah! You’re the same as me. Your job is to care for the land.”
The teacher felt flush with warmth. “I guess you’re right.”
The child scrunched his face in thought. “Now if only we had a story about cats.”

The next morning I woke up and went to the shop to buy some pears. A man I know barrelled in after me and asked if I’d like to go hunting with some men. I said I would, it was my first hunt. Soon I sat by a river with kangaroo on a fire and blood on my hands. Later I stood at the home of a mythical python snake. Later still I helped skin the first buffalo I’d ever seen. On our way home we washed in the river as the sun was setting and the men suggested we say a prayer of thanksgiving, for a day so flush with life.

I can’t say who I prayed to, but I know what I prayed for. I prayed for forgiveness.

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